The Misremembered President
Coolidge. The title is as spare and direct as the subject. Building on her previous book, The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes might have added “The Forgotten President.” Then again, perhaps she realized that Calvin Coolidge’s problem is less that he has been forgotten than that he has been “misremembered,” as the unforgettable Roger Clemens might have put it. Such “misremembering” has contributed to the reviling and ridiculing of Coolidge. But it has also contributed to his having been generally underestimated.
The reviling and ridiculing of Coolidge began even before his presidency and built up such a head of steam during his White House years (1923–29) that it has not ever quite ceased. H. L. Mencken, who should have known better—and probably did—preferred to ridicule, rather than revile, Mr. Coolidge and anyone who might support him. A “Coolidge fanatic,” he once smirked, would have to be a “fanatic for double entry bookkeeping.” Libertarian that he was, Mencken should at least have been a Coolidge fan; instead he couldn’t resist making fun of anyone who would actually “whoop” for Coolidge. As far as Mr. Mencken was concerned, “whooping” for Coolidge was akin to “whooping for parallel longitude.”
To her credit, Shlaes isn’t much inclined to be a Coolidge whooper. Nor does she swoon over him. Unlike a certain incumbent president, Coolidge was simply not the sort of politician for whom one whooped. Nor was he much interested in having people swoon over him. To his credit, this president simply went about his business, which is pretty much what he had always done.
Admittedly, much of that business was directed at enhancing the prospects for American business. And while it is true that Coolidge has been reviled for saying that the “business of the American people is business” (actually, it was the “chief business”), it is also true that those few words belong in a larger context. The occasion was a 1925 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which the president reminded his listeners that “there are many other things we want much more” than wealth, things like “peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.” In fact, the heart of that speech was this line: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.” Business was important to Coolidge, but it was far less important than “many other things.”
Curiously, Shlaes ignores this entire episode. For that matter, she generally neglects Coolidge’s speeches. If there is a single, serious criticism to be made of this otherwise superb biography, it is her failure to do much at all with this important, even memorable, dimension of his presidency. A serious and solid thinker, Coolidge wrote many of his own speeches. Included among them was his 1926 address commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Choosing his words carefully, Coolidge let it be known that he believed in the timelessness of that document and its principles.
Once again, context is crucial. Coolidge knew that its message of “unalienable rights” and equality before “nature’s God” had been under attack by his progressive predecessors, especially Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; hence, he used that anniversary occasion to defend the American founding and the Founders’ belief that our rights come from our Creator and not from government. And once again, Shlaes inexplicably decided to ignore a piece of the Coolidge canon that was important at the time and continues to deserve our attention today.
A man of notoriously dry wit, Coolidge also possessed a very hot, if generally hidden, temper. Furthermore, his was a life filled with more than its share of tragedy. He had lost both his mother and only sister by the time he’d reached his teens. And while gearing up to run in 1924, his sixteen-year-old son and namesake died as the result of a blood infection contracted while playing tennis barefoot. That terrible loss took the steam out of the Coolidge presidency before it was barely underway. And yet he persevered.
Coolidge is less a story of character formed than it is of character displayed. It is also a story of good fortune put to good use. For starters, Coolidge benefited from having a deep sense of place (attached to, if not exactly rooted in, Vermont granite) and a solid education (courtesy of his father and Amherst College). For the long haul, he had in Grace Goodhue a wife and partner who persevered in her own way and helped make his life at once easier and more fulfilling. And all along the way, Grace Coolidge’s husband had the good sense to know what he had been given and what he might try to do with it. A young man of ambition, but never one consumed by ambition, Coolidge turned to elective politics at an early age, honing his skills first on the local and then the state level. It all might have culminated with his winning the governorship of Massachusetts and his role in the Boston police strike of 1919. But it didn’t.
Cast into the national spotlight by his castigation of the striking police, Coolidge let a bid for the White House be launched on his behalf in 1920. When the rooms emptied and the smoke cleared from the Republican national convention, the governor found himself the recipient of a consolation prize, the vice-presidential nomination, and a condolence note from Wilson’s number-two man, Thomas Marshall.
It wouldn’t be long before condolences gave way to what has long been a national pastime, namely vilification and ridicule. The calumny can be explained as follows. He was a career politician, which was bad enough; he was a conservative, which was worse; and he was humorless and heartless to boot. Or at least that’s the way he has been misremembered. And while such traits were at least tolerable at the time, each has become increasingly unforgivable to a populace that demands presidents who flash toothy grins and “feel the pain” of their constituents and clients. The real Coolidge, which is to say the man more like the Coolidge found in these pages, was serious, which is not the same as humorless (indeed Shlaes pays appropriate tribute to Coolidge’s wit), and not at all heartless.
The result is a Coolidge-like biography of Coolidge. It is solid without being celebratory. And it is instructive (about his era and for our own) without being awash in sentimental longings for a bygone age. To be sure, there is that tantalizing “what if”—as in what if Mr. Coolidge had chosen to run in 1928. Here Shlaes can only speculate. But for the time being, let’s stick with the 1920s. This was not the sort of era that lent itself to whooping for or swooning over any politician. The country had had quite enough of both, with the likes of Roosevelt and Wilson at the helm. Yet in another sense it was. After all, this was the Jazz Age, or a time when the country might well have embraced a president fit for—or at least representative of—such a liberating moment. Instead, we wound up with “the Puritan in Babylon,” or so concluded William Allen White, the sage of Emporia, Kansas, and an early Coolidge biographer.
White seemed to be suggesting that Coolidge was the wrong man for his time. But was he? Calvin Coolidge may have been an accidental president, but he delivered on the key promise of his distracted predecessor. In fact, it is fair to suggest that President Coolidge probably exceeded anything that the scandal-plagued administration of Warren Harding might have accomplished.
While this is a lengthy book, the heart of Shlaes’s story dwells on Coolidge’s effort to cut both taxes and spending, with more than a little help from Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, whom Coolidge inherited from Harding, whose promise to “return to normalcy” has likewise been misunderstood by progressive interpreters. Harding wanted stability in government taxation and spending, not a return to some nineteenth-century utopia. Given the dramatic wartime tax hikes, coupled with the fact that the federal income tax was still in its infancy, it is reasonable to assume that Coolidge might have had a fairly easy time restoring normalcy to the country’s economic affairs. Not so. Progressives in both parties, and Democrats generally, fought hard. But Coolidge persevered and largely prevailed. It was all part of “Keeping Cool with Coolidge.”
Shlaes argues that Coolidge’s presidential leadership laid the groundwork for the prosperity of the 1920s. Today we would call that groundwork “supply side economics.” Then it was dubbed (by Mellon) “scientific taxation.” Nonetheless, the idea behind each was the same: tax cuts would spur economic growth; such growth, in turn, would put more money in people’s pockets; and more money in people’s pockets meant more money in taxpayers’ hands, which eventually meant more money in federal coffers.
This last step, it must be conceded, worried President Coolidge. After all, more money in the hands of the federal government meant more money to be spent by the federal government. That included defense spending. In fact, Coolidge was so worried about this sort of spending that he let himself be enamored of the campaign to outlaw war that gave the world the innocuous and deservedly ridiculed Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, which pledged nations not to use war to settle their differences.
Ah, one more reason to dismiss Calvin Coolidge. He may have had his moment, but his day is long gone and deservedly so. After all, didn’t his policies prepare the way for the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression that followed? Not so fast, cautions Amity Shlaes, who shares another Coolidge worry. From the Coolidge perspective of 1928, that worry would be what the “Wonder Boy” might do as president. “Wonder Boy” was Coolidge’s less than celebratory term for Herbert Hoover, his then Commerce Secretary and all too eager successor. From the perspective of 2013, Hoover was a statist bent on using the powers of government to make a bad situation (the stock market crash) worse (the ensuing depression).
Another Coolidge worry, by the way, was what he perceived to be an unhealthy hike in stock prices near the end of his presidency. No one can know how a freshly re-elected President Coolidge would have reacted to the crash of October, 1929. But it’s not inconceivable that he might well have borrowed a page from his predecessor. Faced with a severe recession in 1921, Warren Harding essentially waited it out. In sum, the fun-loving Harding did the humorless, heartless thing. Could a humorless, heartless Coolidge have gotten away with this in 1929? And if so, might the country have experienced a brief, if severe, economic downturn, while being spared a decade of economic depression? We shall never know.
Could a Coolidge be elected president in this century? To be sure, as Richard Nixon might have put it, to one degree or another “we’re all statists now.” The days of limited government, 1920s style, are long gone. The dismantling of the federal bureaucracy is perhaps an impossible dream. And forging another Kellogg-Briand Pact will not tame our enemies. But to have a president of Coolidge’s character and temperament, his decency and sensibility, his skepticism about governmental solutions, coupled with his confidence in the American people and their possibilities . . . now that’s something worth dreaming about—and working for.
John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota and is a frequent reviewer.
Posted: April 28, 2013